TV & Radio
The New York Times
November 23, 2005
Plan to Dissolve Nation's Only Public Women's College Stirs Debate at Rutgers
By RONALD SMOTHERS
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J., Nov. 21 - With Douglass College, the nation's only publicly financed women's college, facing the possibility that it will be converted into a less autonomous campus of Rutgers University, a passionate debate is under way here about the value of a separate education for women.
The dispute comes as Rutgers is set early next year to consider a proposal by a task force that the college, with its separate admission requirements, administration and a limited number of separate course offerings, lose those attributes and become a unit of the 26,000-student university.
The task force called for creating a single college of arts and sciences out of Douglass and four other nearly autonomous units of the university, to eliminate what it said was a confusing patchwork of admission and graduation requirements.
But the recommendation has touched off a debate, and this week supporters of the 3,000-student Douglass college called in reinforcements: the female presidents of four women's colleges to make the case for single-sex colleges at a time when more than 56 percent of undergraduate enrollees are women, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics of the United States Department of Education.
Nancy Y. Bekavac, the president of Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., told nearly 300 students, alumni and faculty at a panel discussion Monday night that there was some evidence that coeducation created "blockages" for some women.
She cited a 2003 study at Duke University in North Carolina to argue that women at the college faced the "murderous pressure" of academics as well as meeting the "strict standards of femininity" after the campus went coeducational in the 1970's.
She said women "felt pressure to be effortlessly perfect, flawlessly turned out, and never threatening to men in the classroom."
"These are the things that get in the way of what we really want to do," she said.
And in a time when higher education curriculums are moving toward specialized, career-oriented courses, said Judith Shapiro, president of Barnard College in New York, said women's colleges generally present a different experience.
"What is being lost with the demise of women's colleges that we read about here and there is more generally the small liberal arts college," she said. "But I also think of them as the proverbial room of their own for women."
Carol T. Christ, a Douglass graduate and president of Smith College since 2002, said that she had found something invigorating in the "intellectual cross-training" that occurred in the atmosphere created at small women's colleges.
A former executive vice chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley, she said one apparent result was that more women at Smith were motivated to major in math and science than she found at Berkeley. "And this is critical to our worldwide competitiveness," she said.
Patricia Lamiell, a spokesman for Rutgers University, said that figures for the three liberal arts undergraduate schools at Rutgers showed a different picture for women. Nine percent of Douglass students majored in math or science, she said, compared with 17 percent and 12 percent at two other units of Rutgers.
For Johnetta Cole, a member of the panel who is the president of the historically black women's Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., the strongest argument for women's colleges is today's society.
"As long as we live in a society where there is power and privilege in being white and being male, we need these institutions," she told the audience.
There are 58 all-women colleges in the country, according to the Women's College Coalition, an advocate for women's colleges. At the same time, women outnumbered men in undergraduate programs by 9.4 million to 7.2 million at all institutions, according to 2002 figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics.